'We're ready': UM begins gauntlet with physical Wisconsin
Ann Arbor — It was one of those games that Michigan just had to get through and along the way created some memorable moments like “The Hurdle” — fullback Ben Mason leaping over a defender — and “The Whirlybird” — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s description of a spin-out trouble-avoidance move by quarterback Shea Patterson.
Michigan (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) plowed through Maryland, 42-21, giving up two offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter — the Terrapins' only score early in the game was on a kickoff return — to push its win streak to five games.
And now comes the meat, the heart, the make-or-break, whatever you want to call it, part of the Big Ten schedule that should determine just who the Wolverines really are in Harbaugh’s fourth season. Michigan will face Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) Saturday night at Michigan Stadium, the team's first significant test since opening at Notre Dame, and a week later travel to in-state rival Michigan State. After a bye, Michigan faces Penn State at home on Nov. 3.
“We’re ready. We’re ready to go,” Patterson said after completing 19 of 27 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns in the Maryland win. “We’ll have a good game plan for (Wisconsin). They’re a great team. They’re going to come in here hungry, ready to play.”
After losing the season opener at Notre Dame, Michigan has outscored its opponents, 212-71, while averaging 42.4 points a game. The only real test for the Wolverines during that stretch was a road game at Northwestern. Michigan overcame a sluggish start and a 17-point deficit for a 20-17 gut-check win.
The Wolverines have towering national defensive statistics, leading the country in overall defense (230.5 yards a game) and pass defense (134 yards). They are sixth in run defense (96.5 yards) and 10th in points allowed (15.8). On offense, it is clear the addition of Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss last December, has made a significant difference. Michigan is 54th in total offense (420.7 yards) and 21st in pass efficiency.
Perhaps the more significant stats, however, are tackles for loss and sacks allowed, which shed light on what appears to be an improving offensive line. It can be argued Michigan hasn’t faced a stout defense during this five-game winning streak outside of Northwestern and, to some extent, Maryland. But Michigan is 25th in tackles for loss and 31st in sacks allowed. This is an enormous improvement from last season when the Wolverines were among the nation’s worst in both categories.
Wisconsin, considered the West Division favorite and a national playoff contender before the season, has one blemish on the year, a surprising 24-21 loss at home to BYU. The Badgers rank No. 2 behind the Wolverines in the Big Ten in scoring defense. They are No. 1 in the league in rushing offense (287 yards) and are fourth in total offense (480.2 yards).
The Wolverines relish the opportunity to face the Badgers’ rushing attack led by Jonathan Taylor, who is averaging 169.8 yards a game and 6.7 yards a carry and has scored eight rushing touchdowns.
“We’re ready. I feel like we’re ready,” linebacker Devin Bush said of the upcoming three-game stretch. “Just knowing they’ve got to come in and play us. They’ve got to defend against us and try to beat us.”
Last season, Wisconsin beat Michigan, 24-10, at Camp Randall Stadium. Bush said this is a new approach the team is taking, that opponents have to beat Michigan, not the other way around.
“When you come in, you play Michigan, you’re gonna have to beat Michigan,” Bush said. “Michigan is not playing against you.”
Mason is proving to be a versatile player for the Wolverines as a blocking back, a tailback and a guy who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or something like that. He now has five touchdowns this season after adding a 1-yard run in which he bulldozed a Maryland linebacker for the score.
Former walk-on back Tru Wilson has received plenty of notice for his blocking ability and seems to seek contact as Mason does. This will be their kind of game against Wisconsin.
“Two big-time programs and you probably can definitely expect a physical, physical ball game,” Mason said. “Two physical teams.”
Patterson didn’t bite when asked if this night game against Wisconsin has more of a big-game feel than what Michigan has played since the Notre Dame opener.
“Any Big Ten game is something we take personal as a group,” he said. “Every game, really. The way we attacked Nebraska and then Northwestern and Maryland, kind of the same thing to prepare.”
Michigan had a slow start in the opener at Notre Dame and also at Northwestern, which it overcame. The Wolverines had only a field goal in the first quarter against Maryland. Getting out to a strong start is important in any game, but under the lights against Wisconsin, it will be critical.
“Starting fast, starting strong, that almost defines the rest of the game for us,” center Cesar Ruiz said. “If we come out and start strong and score and keep running the ball gaining yards, that’s really important.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re prepared for Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Wisconsin 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; Michigan 5-1, 3-0
Line: Michigan by 7